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Neil Flynn ’82 keeps us laughing

Back in California after a holiday visit to family in Waukegan, NEIL FLYNN ’82  was home finishing a slice of Lou Malnati’s  sausage pizza when Bradley Hilltopics caught up with him. While he’s lived in L.A. for more than 15 years, Neil still comes across as a Midwesterner. Not only does he savor that occasional deep-dish pizza from Chicago, most of his friends are transplanted Chicagoans. He keeps in touch with friends from Bradley and high school. That helps explain why his portrayal of an Indiana family man in ABC’s The Middle has been spot-on for three seasons.

By GAYLE ERWIN McDOWELL '77

Before being cast as The Middle’s Mike Heck, husband of Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton), NEIL FLYNN ’82 spent eight seasons as the ubiquitous hospital janitor on Scrubs. (Not familiar with Scrubs? It should not be difficult to find an old episode on TV.)

The Middle, set in fictional Orson, Indiana, continues to lead off ABC’s popular Wednesday night lineup. Considering that Neil has worked 11 consecutive years on two hit primetime TV series, it might appear that success came easy.

“Just last week someone I knew from high school said, ‘Are you surprised you made it so quickly?’ I said ‘Are you crazy? It took 20 years!’” Neil exclaims. The acquaintance might have been thinking back to his classmate’s role in The Fugitive (1993). “I told him that was one day of work. … The challenge for an actor is just to stick around and pick up enough work during each year so you can pay your bills. That’s how I did it for a decade or two.”

Winding path to Hollywood 

Cast as a hospital janitor with an attitude, NEIL FLYNN ’82 appeared in the pilot of Scrubs in 2001, not expecting that his role on the top-rated comedy would continue for eight years.

After Neil and his speech team partner clinched the “humorous duet acting” title at the state tournament for Waukegan East, a recruiting telegram arrived from Bradley speech coach George Armstrong. Taking Bradley up on the offer of a partial scholarship, Neil was on campus in Peoria that fall.

 “I was just 17 when I started college so I did a lot of growing up there. I learned how to socialize. I found what I wanted to do,” Neil says of his Bradley years — 1978 to 1982. “It was all a very positive time.” 

Neil has good memories of the speech team: “We traveled quite a bit — Colorado, Kentucky, Ohio. … We always drove. Hanging out with a van full of friends was fun,” he recalls. Neil was one of about 50 former teammates who gathered in Chicago for an informal reunion last summer.

“I held a couple of offices in Sigma Nu, but I wasn’t involved in any award-winning community outreach,” he jokes. “I just enjoyed the company of the other guys and the parties and the sports. I took some kidding at the fraternity about what a speech major expects to do when one graduates, and I didn’t have a good answer.”

His “aha” moment about pursuing an acting career didn’t occur until junior year when Neil enrolled in his first college acting class and then auditioned for a play. By graduation, he had appeared in three productions with glowing reviews. He was inspired by director Richard Marriott and his professor, “Doc Bell” (the late Dr. Collins Bell). “Deciding to work in the theater at Bradley was a really good decision for me. I came to the conclusion that I’d like to give acting a try as my profession.”

While the journey was challenging, Neil admits he’s proud that he never gave up. 

“I moved out to California in the mid ’80s, mostly because my girlfriend was moving out here. The timing wasn’t right for me. I was pretty much ignored that first time,” he recalls, laughing. “They weren’t waiting for me.” 

Within five years, he was back in the Windy City with the intention of going back to doing theater — and maybe “someday” giving L.A. another try. 

“A nice development there that I hadn’t planned on is I sort of wandered into the iO Theater (formerly the Improv Olympic Theater) in Chicago. And it turned out I was capable of improvising. I had never tried it before. My path took a turn and I ended up working at Second City,” Neil says. “That did me some good as far as preparing me to work in comedy.”

Eventually, Neil returned to Los Angeles and, at age 40, was cast as the quirky janitor in a new hospital-based comedy, Scrubs.

Stardom arrives

The fictional staff of Sacred Heart Hospital looks happy even though the Scrubs janitor (Neil Flynn) caused trouble for them for nearly a decade.

 

Neil Flynn might be uncomfortable with the word “stardom,” but his star was clearly rising that second time around in Hollywood. During a summer break from Scrubs, one of his roles was as Lindsay Lohan’s father in Mean Girls (2004).

So what must it be like when celebrity status comes along, and people start recognizing an actor on the street? “I don’t have a hard time. People don’t harass me or anything. They’re usually polite and brief. That’s fine. That’s part of the deal,” says the 6-foot-5 actor who often poses for pictures with fans. “It’s a reminder that something must have gone right. You have to make the adjustments that when you’re in public, strangers will know who you are.” 

After eight seasons on Scrubs, Neil traded his janitor’s uniform for Mike Heck’s plaid shirts and jeans on The Middle. Often struggling to make ends meet for his harried family, “Mike” is a nice, regular guy.

“I think I am a regular guy so I don’t find it difficult to play one. I don’t think I’ll ever play the chief of medicine or a senator or anything. I fit into the regular guy slot,” he jokes.

As much as he enjoyed Scrubs, Neil is more than content on the set of The Middle. The cast, including the talented actors who play the three Heck kids, gets along very well.

“This role has me at work quite a few more hours than Scrubs. It’s a bigger role and that’s a good thing. While they’re both comedies, I play a much more grounded character now than I did on Scrubs. It was a lot of fun, but I’m happy to have the more significant role now,” says Neil, who usually is the voice of reason in the Heck household.

In a recent episode of The Middle, the Heck kids vote in favor of moving. “They’re all good actors and they’re all good people. To have the children be capable of carrying a story line is a real bonus because that’s not always the case,” Neil remarks.

Each episode takes five days to shoot, with production beginning at 6:30 a.m. on Mondays. Workdays are typically about 12 hours long, and the cast is due back 12 hours after the previous day’s shooting ends. Neil points out that it’s not physical work, but it can be draining on days when an actor has many lines.

“It’s not working the whole time. A lot of time is spent sitting around talking with co-workers,” he reports, adding, “We see each other outside of work sometimes. I just had lunch with Eden (Sher), who plays my daughter, yesterday. I’m happy to say we’re all friends. Patty (Heaton, who starred as Debra on Everybody Loves Raymond) and I get along very well, and that’s a real bonus.”

The Middle often features guest stars, including Brooke Shields, Ray Romano, Ed Asner, Norm Macdonald, and Molly Shannon. Doris Roberts sometimes plays one son’s snarky teacher. Jerry Van Dyke and Marsha Mason show up as Neil’s in-laws. “I like it any time Jerry Van Dyke is around. I like the old-timers, and it gives me a kick that I’m working with somebody I watched on TV when I was a kid,” says Neil, one of six children who also has a cousin he considers a brother.

More than The Middle

Neil and his TV wife Patricia Heaton star as Frankie and Mike Heck in ABC’s The Middle.

Because the actors are usually still at work during The Middle’s time slot (7 p.m. Central on Wednesdays), Neil records it and watches later that night. The production schedule allows little free time during the week, but Neil enjoys fantasy basketball and baseball. The lifelong Cubs fan also follows politics closely. Until last year, he did improv with a group of friends almost every Saturday night at iO West.

“We did that for years for free just because it was so much fun. Most improvisers are not getting paid. They’re doing it for the love of the game,” he explains. “I wanted to quit before I started to damage my own reputation. You gotta know when to hang it up.”

Neil also decided recently it was time to give up playing sports, especially softball. “I tried to stretch it out as long as I could, but I’ve faced facts. It’s hard to play without getting hurt now,” says the 51-year-old. “My bosses aren’t thrilled at the chances of their actors being hurt in any way. Showing up with a black eye wouldn’t go over well.” 

When summer approaches and the show’s 24 episodes are completed, Neil continues to work in movies if the timing is right. He’s happy, however, to have “found a home on TV.” He pauses to reflect on a day on the set of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). “I had a little speech in there, and as we’re shooting it I realized there was a roomful of people paying attention to me. Steven Spielberg was 10 feet away from me, and 10 feet the other way was Harrison Ford. Just for a moment I thought ‘what an odd situation this is,’ and I then had to quickly shake it off and just do my job.”

In the 31 years since he first appeared on the stage at Bradley’s Hartmann Center, this same thought has replayed in his mind: “I’ve thought if I’m making some small accomplishment, at least I can say I did this — if this is all I ever do. Working with Spielberg was one of those moments.”  

Roles in Night Must Fall and Our Town in 1981 helped convince speech major NEIL FLYNN ’82 that his future was in acting. He appeared in Antigone in January 1982. Neil reports also being inspired by two Bradley acting classes. During his junior year, Neil portrayed George Gibbs in Our Town, his first play at Bradley.